The easiest part of C.J. LaFragola’s road to the NCAA Division I Wrestling Tournament was the selection process.
The rest of it was hard. In fact, some would say it almost cost him an eye and a leg.
The junior Brown University wrestler will compete in his second national tournament starting noon Thursday at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. He, like the 31 other wrestlers in the 184-pound bracket, hope for an All-American honor, which is a top-eight spot on the podium.
The three-day tournament runs through Saturday.
“It’s awesome, man,” the 20-year-old Little Egg Harbor resident and 2015 St. Joseph High School graduate said Monday evening. “This year was cool because I didn’t have to get the wild card spot. I punched my ticket after the conference tournament.”
Last year, LaFragola had an underwhelming performance at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Championships, having to rely on earning an at-large bid.
This year, he took fifth in a competition where the top seven are guaranteed a spot in the national tournament.
That was the easy part. The hard part was overcoming a pair of injuries that could have been major setbacks.
Just weeks before the season, LaFragola suffered a nasty eye injury that caused him to miss the season-opener Nov. 12. He returned Nov. 18 to win the Navy Classic in Annapolis, Maryland.
But at the Midlands Championships in Illinois on Dec. 30, LaFragola injured his ankle and missed three crucial weeks of his season. He is 100 percent healthy now, and had a strong end to his season which included placing at the EIWA Championships in Hempstead, New York.
“He’s been dealt some adversity through the season,” Brown coach Todd Beckerman said. “That’s what helped him get back. Nothing is always perfect in our sport. You always have to be able to bounce back.”
LaFragola is 19-8 this season, including 4-7 against wrestlers in his bracket.
The unseeded LaFragola will open up Thursday with No. 14 Rutgers’ Nick Gravina (17-5). Gravina is one of six Rutgers wrestlers competing this weekend, including former four-time N.J. state champion Nick Suriano (125) from Bergen Catholic.
If LaFragola wins, he sets up a potential rematch with No. 3 Ryan Preisch of Lehigh, who pinned LaFragola two weeks ago in the EIWA Tournament.
Though LaFragola didn’t face Gravina during the season, however he saw him in the preseason during a freestyle event.
“We know his style,” LaFragola said. “He’s not going to try to overwhelm you. I can’t let him wrestling his match.”
This time around, LaFragola expects to be much looser than he was last year. During last year’s tournament, he dropped a 6-0 decision in the pre-quarterfinal and a 7-4 decision in the consolation bracket.
“That was the first time I saw it in person, as a wrestler and as a spectator,” LaFragola said. “Just being able to see it I feel now I know what to expect. There’s the same normal nerves I always have in a big tournament. But I’m definitely a lot more confident.”
What also helps is that LaFragola has two teammates with him this time around – Justin Staudenmayer (157) and Jonathan Viruet (165). He was alone at last year’s tournament.
Not only are they teammates whose energy he can feed off of but they wrestle in the classes before him. A big win from either, LaFragola hopes, will give him some momentum going into his match. That’s simply the type of person he is, on and off the mat.
“The hay is in the barn now. There is not much left to do,” LaFragola said. “Let’s get through the next day, make sure our weight is in check and wrestle our matches. That’s the goal. It’s one match at a time and get that hand raised.”